Sunday, July 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' Cobb determined to pitch again

ST. PETERSBURG

He wanted to get up. He wanted to keep pitching.

When you think about Alex Cobb, about his last pitch or his next one, think about that. Before you imagine the explosion on the right side of his face or the searing headaches that followed or the dizzying vertigo, imagine that.

Blood was leaking out of his ear, and he wanted to keep going. Fluid was filling his skull, and he wanted to finish what he had started.

In case you were wondering, yeah, the kid is going to be all right.

Frankly, he's too stubborn to consider any other outcome.

Cobb returned to Tropicana Field on Monday, nine days after Eric Hosmer's line drive — measured at 102 mph — slammed into his head and left him prone on the field. It was a horrifying moment and, even now, Cobb cannot talk about it without mentioning the sheer fortune that it did not do more damage than it did.

Cobb remembers fractions of the moment. He remembers deciding what pitch to throw, but he had to be reminded that he threw a fastball. He remembers seeing a glimpse of the ball coming toward him, maybe just enough so he could turn his head slightly to avoid being hit flush in the face. He remembers being fully conscious as he lay there, thinking perhaps the ball had just grazed him.

"I didn't really realize how big a deal it was," says Cobb, 25. "I thought maybe it just grazed me. I never really hurt that bad until the spinning set in. I wanted to continue pitching. Then I realized some blood was coming out of my ear, so I realized I was probably going to have to get off. But I wanted to walk off on my own power. But it's better I didn't, seeing all the issues that came up later."

The longer Cobb lay prone, the more the pressure built. By the time he was wheeled off, he said, Tropicana Field was spinning and the headaches had begun. But he wasn't scared until they loaded him into the back of the ambulance.

When Cobb was a minor-leaguer, he played with a pitcher named Darin Downs. Later, after Downs had been promoted to Double-A Montgomery, he was hit by a batted ball. Later that night, Downs began to bleed from the brain, and surgeons had to perform emergency surgery. Lying there, Cobb wondered if the same thing was happening to him.

A CAT scan showed that Cobb wasn't bleeding. He was concussed, however. Fluid began to fill his eardrum, which led to nausea and vertigo. Turning his head too quickly, or rising from bed too quickly, led to sharp headaches. He jokes that the only activity his girlfriend, Kelly Reynolds, allows him is to walk the dogs twice a day. Oh, and once, he sat on the steps of his pool.

For Cobb, and for the Rays, the right-hander's timetable for a return is a mystery. He cannot work out until his equilibrium is right. Simple as that.

"Oh, man, it's not like in the past," Cobb said. "I've had ankle injuries, shoulders, whatever. You can fight through it as a competitor. You can handle the pain and know you're not going to do any further damage to yourself.

"There is no way to do that with this kind of injury. It's with you every second of the day. You're not going to be able to fight through it until your body tells you you're good."

And so the Rays wait … for how long?

"I've read a few things where people don't think I'm going to pitch again this year," Cobb said. "There can't be anything further from the truth. I'll be ready to go as soon as my body is ready."

Of course, that's when the real challenge begins. Think about Cobb's job. He stands close enough to the hitter to smell his cologne. They are giant men, players such as David Ortiz and Prince Fielder and Adam Dunn, and it is his job to get the ball past them. And when they swing their clubs, it is Cobb's job not to flinch.

That is harder than it sounds. Through the history of baseball, pitchers who have been hit by batted balls tend to recoil on balls hit up the middle. Some don't even realize it until shown it on tape.

"I don't think that's something you can say until you go through it," Cobb said. "I would love to sit here and tell you no, that when I go back out there I'll have the mind-set that it's not going to happen again. But I'm not going to lie. I've had some nightmares about it, about how bad it could have been. It's obviously going to be in the back of my mind, and I'm obviously going to try to pitch through it.

"I've seen it. I've seen guys who cover their faces after they throw. I really can't tell you how I'm going to react. I don't think I'll have those reactions. I really can't speak to that right now."

Rays manager Joe Maddon, for one, has an idea. He thinks that once Cobb is past the physical challenges, he'll be just fine.

"If I had to bet," Maddon said, "I would bet that if he thinks about it at all, it will be away from the park. I think he'll be fine once he pitches. Just knowing him, he is so competitive. He might think about it on a quiet moment away from the park, but on the mound, he'll just pitch."

It's a good bet. Cobb is intensely competitive, and he's seriously confident. Just ask him if he thinks, down deep, this play will have any lasting effect on his career.

"No, I don't," he said. "It's easy to say that right now, but there is no doubt. When I was on the ground, Ron (Porterfield, the trainer) told me that I would be out there making my next start. When I found out I wasn't able to do that, I was pretty upset. Every start that goes by, I'm pretty upset that I'm not able to start."

He'll risk it, in other words. Just give him his health, and then give him the ball.

Besides, what are the odds of getting hit twice in a career?

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